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Medieval Underpants

The title of this journal post caught your attention, didn’t it! Just as the title of Susanne Alleyn’s little book does—Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders. I recently read this book, and it’s one that is not only indispensable for my own writing but also one that’s worth sharing with everyone. The lengthy subtitle is A Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths. Whew.

Alleyn states right at the start that her book is not how to write historical fiction but rather “is a book on how not to write historical fiction.” However, it doesn’t matter at all if you never plan to write—or read—a historical fiction book. Medieval Underpants (there weren’t any) is an informative and funny book and will give you some amazing trivia to insert into conversation at your next party. It’s delightfully illustrated with images from Alice in Wonderland, old (as in olde) cartoons, and funky clip-art photos and drawings.

The truly outrageous bloopers in published (yes!) books Alleyn calls “hideous howlers” and even worse, “big, honking, obvious howlers.” It’s true—I laughed out loud most of the way through the book (except for the guillotine section—more on that below.) The sad fact is that all the bloopers she’s seen made it past both authors and editors. What's sadder is that too many readers will assume the author is correct.

Susanne Alleyn is a historical fiction writer and also a scholar of the French Revolution. She finds many, many errors in fiction about that much-maligned period—even in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. She is also an expert on the construction and use of the guillotine and is no doubt unopposed in her remarks about it dropped into cocktail conversation. Yes, you too can be edified beyond your wildest imaginings after reading her chapters on the above.

Even so, Alleyn is deeply committed to accurate research before writers present a book or movie (gag!) to the public as authentic. She has eight pages of resources for the would-be historical fiction writer at the end of the book, sorted by years and presumably vetted by her for their own accuracy.

Finally, to prove you are an astute reader, here are some howlers for you to research why they are (or not, in one sneaky case.)

George Washington studied the life and military history of Napoleon.

Queen Elizabeth wore cotton shifts under all that stiff clothing.

Caesar served a tomato-basil dish at his banquet table.

A 15th-century tavern at Oxford sold coffee and tobacco.

The feisty Medieval heroine was named Skylar.

Cromwell OK'd a recent decision of Parliament.

The doorknobs in Versailles Palace were solid gold.

The Irish playwright George Farquhar used a pencil to make notes.

Medieval Underpants is easily read in one day, and I dare anyone to say there aren’t some great laughs in it. What’s not to laugh about William the Conqueror smoking a victory cigar after the Battle of Hastings?

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